OPINION

How American Elites Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Segregation.

Segregationist and neo-segregationist policies, then and now.

If you thought that segregation was a relic of America’s pre-Civil Rights past, think again. In August of this year, Atlanta, Georgia parent Kila Posey filed a federal discrimination complaint against Mary Lin Elementary School in the city’s public school district. She filed the complaint after she discovered that African-American and white students were being placed in separate classes with separate teachers in the school. When the concerned parent indicated that she “wanted her child placed in the classroom of a teacher she thought would be a good fit,” Posey was offered the following explanation:

She said that’s not one of the black classes, and I immediately said, ‘What does that mean?’ I was confused. I asked for more clarification. I was like, ‘We have those in the school?’ And she [the school principal] proceeded to say, ‘Yes. I have decided that I’m going to place all of the black students in two classes.’

As you might imagine, Posey was aghast. She told WSB-TV that, “First, it was just disbelief that I was having this conversation in 2020 with a person that looks just like me—a black woman.” She also explained: “It’s segregating classrooms. You cannot segregate classrooms. You can’t do it.”

Divide-and-conquer strategies that prevent those with common economic interests from coming together have just about always worked in favor of the elites…

Years ago, one might have expected this to be the result of one principal’s policy—something to be treated as a puzzling oddity to be discussed by news programs and possibly mocked by late-night hosts in the vein of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Johnny Carson, or Jon Stewart. But unfortunately, any denizen of the America of 2021, regardless of their political affiliation or cultural background, is aware that the resurgence of hyper-racialization and segregation is hardly confined to one elementary school. It is the result of an ideological movement dedicated to splitting up Americans into different racial categories some six-and-a-half decades since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision integrating America’s schools.

Two books, How To Be An Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility (2018) by Robin DiAngelo, have been prescribed by countless public and private sector entities seeking to redefine Americans’ conceptions of race. Both draw focus on an individual’s group identity rather than their individual perspective or identity as a human being and simplify the complex history of American society into oppressor/oppressed categories. DiAngelo writes that “Anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities… Whiteness has always been predicated on blackness.” According to Kendi, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination… The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

“Critical Race Theory (CRT),” which is an academic theory predating the publication of DiAngelo and Kendi’s books by several decades, is often used colloquially to denote the new ideology that can be described as DiAngelo-Kendism. CRT is “a negativist theory that relies on the ability to find racism in every facet of society and is propped up daily by divisive media talking heads who push discordant content for views and clicks. Not only has critical race theory regressed the national conversation on race, but it’s regressed the national conversation in general,” writes R.C. Maxwell. The effects of this hyper fixation on racial difference, integral to DiAngelo-Kendism, can be found everywhere, from corporate boardrooms to university lecture halls. Most recently—and much to the dismay of an African American parent like Kila Posey—it’s found its way into K-12 classrooms.

Is today’s reality in Atlanta Public Schools much different from the vision expressed by Alabama Governor George Wallace in his 1963 inaugural address? “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” was the mantra of the Governor, who infamously stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent the racial integration of the University of Alabama. Back in 1963, pitting Alabamians against Alabamians on the basis of skin color was a winning political strategy for opportunistic politicians like Governor Wallace. Wallace reaped the benefits of polarization through his multiple terms as governor. Divide-and-conquer strategies that prevent those with common economic interests from coming together have just about always worked in favor of the elites: whether that be a landed elite in a semi-manorial economic system, or, as in today’s case, an academic elite seeking to suppress one set of ideas in favor of another.

One might surmise that Wallace might be proud that at least one principal in the U.S. state of Georgia seems to be following in his footsteps—except that Wallace expressed remorse for his segregationist stance. In 1979, after becoming a born-again Christian, Wallace asked for forgiveness from African-Americans, saying, “Those days are over, and they ought to be over.”

Yet history may, unfortunately, repeat itself.

Ku Klux Klan March on the Capitol.

Ku Klux Klan March on the Capitol.

THE LONG HISTORY OF PROGRESSIVE-BACKED RACIAL DIVISION

The pre-Civil Rights era Southern United States isn’t the first time in American history when elites pitted different ethnic groups against each other to preserve power. It also happened in U.S. colonial history, after one of the first uprisings against the British colonial establishment. Between 1675 and 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt against Governor William Berkeley that was comprised of a broad coalition: European, African, Native American, slave, free. The rebellion caused the recall of Berkeley to England, and colonial overlords were frightened of an alliance between European-descended and African-descended colonists who were not from the highest caste. As a result, Virginia’s Slave Codes were established, which set a precedent for race-based slavery and segregation in the British colonies and eventually in the United States.

Segregation and Progressivism went hand in hand as Progressives were especially concerned about ‘race suicide’…

A law passed by the British colonial government in Virginia in 1691 ensured that intermarriage between white colonists and black colonists or Native Americans would be cause for banishment from Virginia. In 1723, it became illegal for black colonists to own weapons, regardless of free status. The Codes also prevented white colonists from being employed by black colonists, established separate courts for white and black colonists, and enabled a free slave trade. The Codes did not formally end until after the Civil War, and the ban on interracial marriage would not be struck down until 1967 as a consequence of the famous Loving v. Virginia case. All as a result of British elites seeking power.

African Americans are far from the only group affected by America’s history of racial segregation. The past four years have yielded plenty of hot takes on race and racial classifications in America. While mounting a defense of teachers’ unions that opposed in-person teaching, AFT president Randi Weingarten, claimed in an April 1st interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news source that Americans of the Jewish faith represent an “ownership class” in the U.S.—a whopper that is patently false and easily disproved. In fact, Jewish American immigrants commonly faced anti-Semitism and discrimination in American history, everywhere from employers to country clubs by an anti-Semitic American elite. The Ku Klux Klan targeted Americans who practiced Judaism, both during the Wilson era and in the 1960s when two Jewish civil rights activists were murdered in Mississippi.

Along with their acts of terrorism against black Americans, the Klan had plenty of other non-African American religious targets: Irish Catholic Father James Coyle was murdered in the 1920s by Klansman and minister E. R. Stephenson. The 1960s saw the murder of Episcopalian seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who drew the Klan’s ire as an Anglo supporter of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When thinking of our history of racism, however, we often think of the KKK and similar extremist groups. The thing is, Klan wasn’t the only obstacle to racial integration. Segregation was also embraced by politicians and “thought leaders” of the Progressive Era.

20th century Progressives were enthusiastic proponents of eugenics, “a movement to improve human heredity by the social control of human breeding, based on the assumption that differences in human intelligence, character, and temperament are largely due to differences in heredity.” During this period, distinctions between European ethnicities were considered to be different races: the “Anglo-Saxon” or “Anglo-Teutonic” was considered a separate race from the “Irish-Iberian.” Within these categorizations, hierarchies were created: the “Nordic race” of Northern and Northwestern Europe, a classification that guided the supremacist ideology of “Nordicism,” claiming that “Nordic” people were superior.

Generations of Angelenos have been held back by segregation in the schools—why would neo-segregationist policies be any different?

Progressive thinking on eugenics informed their policy decisions. Progressive Era economists believed that “the labor force should be rid of unfit workers,” whom they labeled “parasites,” “the unemployable,” “low-wage races,” and the “industrial residuum.” In 1913, a Progressive Democrat, President Woodrow Wilson, effectively segregated America’s civil service, taking a formerly integrated (at least nominally) government organization and further separating Americans by ethnicity. Scholars have determined that the African-American civil service was more or less eroded by Wilson’s policies. Segregation and Progressivism went hand in hand as Progressives were especially concerned about “race suicide,” “a Progressive Era term for the process by which racially superior stock (“natives”) is outbred by a more prolific, but racially inferior stock (immigrants).”

Progressive segregation policies were hardly limited to the workforce; they also have a long history in education policy. Pseudoscientific racial categories guided segregationist “tracking” policies utilized in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a further example of imposed division. A 2004 article by Education Week defines tracking as “the most commonly used term for ability grouping, the practice of lumping children together according to their talents in the classroom.” On paper, tracking would appear to group students by academic merit, yet, in practice, the policy has often separated students by perceived ability, with a subtle racial bias that determines who is placed onto what track.

In 1923, Los Angeles City Schools, the public school district serving Los Angeles, adopted tests to facilitate tracking that were developed by Lewis Terman, a psychologist who believed in eugenics. Terman wrote the following in his 1925 volume, Mental and Physical Traits of a Thousand Gifted Children:

Perhaps a median IQ of 80 for Italian, Portuguese, and Mexican school children in the cities of California would be a liberal estimate. How much of this inferiority is due to the language handicap and to other environmental factors, it is impossible to say, but the relatively good showing made by certain other immigrant groups similarly handicapped would suggest that the true causes lie deeper than environment.

In her 2011 dissertation, Deberae Culpepper-Ofori, a scholar of education, explains how, despite the fact that Terman’s racist beliefs were publicly knowing, the belief system “went unchallenged along with the demographics of the participant pool used to formulate their mental intelligence tests.” Terman’s tracking system, Culpepper-Ofori writes, went on to inform educational policy in Los Angeles until as late as 2010: “From 1996-2010, standardized test scores were used to track students into high, medium, and low tracks resulting in continued student segregation by race.”

It is clear that generations of Angelenos have been held back by segregation in the schools—why would neo-segregationist policies be any different?

Ku Klux Klan cross burning ritual.

Ku Klux Klan cross burning ritual.

NEO-SEGREGATION: AN UNLIKELY RETURN TO THE PAST

For decades a “colorblind” approach to educating students, an approach not accounting for the race of the student, has been under attack from scholars who advocate a race-conscious approach, not unlike that of DiAngelo-Kendism. Many of the critiques of what is perceived as “colorblindness” invoke phrases such as “nationalistic/assimilationist stance,” “meritocratic belief,” and “cultural imperialism.” Another dissertation referred to colorblindness as the “racial project of neoliberalism.”

Studies that are critical of a race-blind curriculum often use rhetoric that appears frequently in Marxist-inspired critiques of capitalism and U.S.-style representative democracy.

The many, many studies that are critical of a race-blind curriculum often use rhetoric that appears frequently in Marxist-inspired critiques of capitalism and U.S.-style representative democracy. A University of North Carolina professional development curriculum known as “Project READY” that began in 2018 and is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services featured a module called “Confronting Colorblindness and Neutrality.” In this module, the author states that, “true colorblindness is not only impossible (see Module 4 on Implicit Bias), but actively harmful toward antiracist work. The goal of antiracist work is not to make race invisible, but rather to make systems of inequity based on race apparent to all so they can be dismantled. For that to happen, we need to see race.”

Remarkably, it wasn’t even that long ago that segregationist policies were being decried on the campaign trail, as the late U.S. Senator John McCain did in 2000. (McCain stated in a presidential primary debate that Bob Jones University’s interracial dating ban “is stupid, it’s idiotic, and it is incredibly cruel to many people.” The Senator’s statement against a policy that remained in place over three decades since Loving v. Virginia could have prompted its repeal not long after the debate.)

Today, educational materials are being used to instruct students about the importance of racial difference—most especially, “whiteness”—with materials stating that white Americans are inherently oppressors on the basis of skin color rather than actions or merit. Even major U.S. corporations are getting into the act with seminars such as Coca-Cola’s “try to be less white,” which urged attendees to “break with white solidarity,” or Disney’s “Reimagine Tomorrow” initiative which lectured employees about DiAngeloist concepts like “white fragility.” It is difficult to understand how the creation of division and distrust makes a work environment more effective.

Neo-segregation has formed a part of the brave new world reckoning with race. Studies are being advanced claiming that babies exhibit racial bias at several months old. Of course, these studies are barely being questioned by the mainstream media, and are instead being presented as founts of undisputed fact. These academic ideas are having a direct impact on the classroom: separate race-based spaces on campus are being established with the potential to rekindle old tensions.

Last May, Wellesley Public Schools (WPS) in Massachusetts earned attention for excluding white students from a “designated healing space.” An email from the WPS Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion stated: “Note: This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, *not* for students who identify only as white.” The so-called “safe space” was specifically designated as being for students from 6th to 12th grade. I guess if Bay State public institutions like WPS want to separate students from their friends who happen to be of a different race or ethnicity, better do it while they’re young. Woodrow Wilson, the Klan-sympathizing President who segregated the U.S. Civil Service, couldn’t have been prouder.

Daryl Davis.

Daryl Davis.

DEFEATING HATE WITH DIALOGUE: THE APPROACH OF DARYL DAVIS

All of this just begs the question: what do school officials have to gain by pitting students against each other? Certainly, schools have embraced policies in the past, such as corporal punishment, that are discredited today. Attitudes towards sex education have also changed over the years. And while the officials who implement DiAngelo-Kendist neo-segregation or related approaches may be similarly well-intentioned, with the goal of ending prejudice and racial resentment, such methods are ultimately counterproductive.

It’s telling that … those pushing segregation advance a divide-and-conquer strategy that targets those with similar economic interests.

Are there any alternatives to these divisive approaches? Thankfully, yes. Daryl Davis, an African-American musician, has been able to accomplish what decades if not centuries of federal policy have not. Davis grew up in integrated social settings as the child of U.S. Foreign Service Officers. Flabbergasted at the ghastly remnants of racism he encountered in the U.S., Davis took it upon himself to root out the prejudices that he and others today experience from white supremacist organizations. Starting in 1983, with a conversation with a Klan member, Davis has had meetings with many Klansmen. While the KKK is still around today, Davis’ efforts have single-handedly reduced membership by over 200. The success that Davis has enjoyed seems to suggest that dialogue, reconciliation, and integration is the path towards unity, strength, freedom, and justice.

It’s telling that, just as in the case of Bacon’s Rebellion and in Rwanda’s humanitarian crisis, those pushing segregation advance a divide-and-conquer strategy that targets those with similar economic interests. Take a look at the most devoted promoters of this neo-segregationist ideology: New York City, San Francisco, the Washington D.C. beltway.

It is ultimately up to the American people whether the approach of DiAngelo-Kendism or the approach of Davis wins out. Rarely has there ever been a crossroads in modern American history in which two methods towards race relations were so diametrically opposed. One would think that the election of an African-American U.S. president—twice, ever-supportive public attitudes towards interracial marriage, and federal laws opposing racial discrimination would yield a move past the superficiality of determinism based upon one’s appearance. The efforts of economic and academic elitists with a vested interest in dividing Americans will only succeed if the American people let them.

Written By:

Robert T. Wood is a researcher, writer, educator, and analyst. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary with two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Global Studies and Hispanic Studies and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University.